Looking into a Glass Darkly (part 2)

One of the challenges faced by the church today may be the need to adopt a “both/and” mentality instead of an “either/or”. Our boxes may be too small for the complex realities of today. Like “new” wine in “old” wineskins, we may be about to ruin a good party by having our “new wine” splattered on the floor and soaking into the carpet because our “old” traditions and wineskins of the past cannot contain the “spirit(s)” of today!

 The old mainline denominations have already shown us what not to do by their unintentional demise in recent history. Their church rolls and financial income dwindled while they hooked their wagons to the “social” agendas. Tony Campolo in Speaking My Mind noted this near fatal mistake writing:

 “To make matters worse, church members often diametrically opposed the positions on social issues articulated from the pulpits of mainline Protestantism. Sociologists have conducted studies validating the fact that church members generally have more conservative stances on political and social matters than do their denominational leaders, or even their clergy” (Campolo, Speaking My Mind, pg.5)

“Even those who agree with the liberal positions many of the leaders of the mainline churches have taken will have to admit that such liberal positions on those matters I have cited are not conducive to fostering growth in church membership or increasing financial support. Thus, it is not surprising that for the last few decades, church membership in mainline denominations has declined, and giving has dropped below what is needed to sustain denominational programs” (Campolo, Speaking My Mind, pg.6)

 These statements challenged my thinking on the future of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Over the past ten years our moderate leadership has challenged our churches and membership to confront a number of social and theological issues. Many of these issues may have needed to be addressed but many could have waited for a more prudent time. From my perspective often the issues arose in reaction against actions and blunders of the Southern Baptist Convention. Too often in my opinion our convention leadership was too reactionary, and may have wandered from our core values in an effort to distance us from the extremes of Fundamentalism.

 A key factor in leadership involves gaining and keeping a following. If a leader gets too far ahead of his or her people often the influence of the leader is diminished. Take the issue of women in ministry as an example. I believe God wants women to play a vital and significant role in the advance of the Kingdom. However, the issue of woman pastors is a hot button for many people who sit in the pews of our “conservative” churches. If a leader chooses to make woman pastors/woman ordination a major agenda item it would appear to me that he or she would be losing touch with the rank and file churches of our convention. At one point we had 5000 BGCT churches and only 1 church had a woman senior pastor. Beside it appears to me that calling a pastor and ordination are local church issues, and our convention leadership needs to trust our local churches to follow the leadership of the Lord in these matters.

 In the latest Baptist Standard, Dr. Wade pointed out the balance in our recent approach to ministry by calling attention to the Evangelism conference next week in Dallas, and the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta later this month. I believe he is on to something. However, I trust he is aware that a large number of our conservative churches and members may be troubled by the political overtones of the New Baptist Covenant gathering with Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter has headliners. I know Dr. Wade feels deeply the BGCT must be a significant player in this gathering, but in making this decision I hope he counted the cost in terms of its impact on the perception of our convention leadership among our churches. By making the NBC such a high profile event, and by spending significant (private) resources to promoted this historic Baptist gathering he runs the risk of splinting our fellowship further.

To be honest, the actions of the BGCT have not reach the depth of the dissonance the mainline denominations have taken in recent decades, but it is clear from the “church drain” that we have drawn some lines in the sand that many were not willing to cross.

My conviction is that we need to keep the “main thing the main thing”. We need to focus our energies on missions, evangelism, church planting, higher Christian education, ministerial equipping and meeting human need. Granted there is a place for advancing certain social agendas, but not on the front burner.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Looking into a Glass Darkly (part 2)

  1. Ellis Orozco

    David:

    Good and thoughtful post. I’ve been reading quite a bit about the demise of the mainline denominations and the wide and varied opinions on the factors involved. Campolo has added his astute observations to an incredibly complex sociological and theological debate. Campolo, as a sociologist and theologian, is one of the best suited minds for the task.

    I would just add a few observations.

    Denominational life is dwindling irrespective of theological leanings. The SBC and the Church of God “denominations,” for instance, are two extremely conservative denominations that are squemish about “over-emphasizing” social issues, and yet are both in decline.

    This decline, it seems to me, is more of a sociological phenomenon, boosted by the recent splintering of numerous denominations over philisophical differences. There are, no doubt, some denominations that are losing churches due to a liberalization of denominational policies (i.e., the Episcopalian/Anglican Churches). As you pointed out … that is not even close to the situation with the SBC or BGCT (and yet they are both losing churches). Even with the “church drain” that some denominations are experiencing, the cold, hard reality is that conventions are not growing because the churches that form them are not growing.

    I tentatively agree with you that pushing the envelope on social issues is a task reserved primarily for the churches, and not the convention. The one exception to that (in Texas Baptist life) is the Christian Life Commission, which should be a prophetic voice speaking to our convention (no for it).

    Unfortunately, the churches (with the exception of the African-American churches during the civil rights movement) have a poor record on the prophetic track. T.B. Maston, speaking from the halls of academia, was a stronger prophetic Baptist voice against racism (in the early 60s) than any pastor or local church body. I’m sorry, but trusting “our churches to follow the leadership of the Lord in these matters,” has not proven effective for those who are being oppressed. Does the church eventually “come around?” Usually … but not without a lot of heroic prodding and pushing … and thousands of gifted individuals spending their lives on the outside looking in, waiting patiently for the church to read her Bible.

    Even so … thanks for thinking deeply on these issues.

    blessings,
    ellis

  2. Ellis,

    Thank you for your post. I think you make some very insightful observations. You may be right about the shifts in our society negatively impacting the large cumbersome denominations. It come be God has decided to deploy His people today in smaller, more mobile organization that can shift more quickly to the rapidly changing world around us.

    I especially appreciate your observation about the need for prophetic voices in times of oppression. T.B. Maston stands head and shoulders about many in his day for his courage to stand up for right when many were counting the cost and no willing to pay it. The Christian Life Commission must serve as a “red flag” group among us calling us to think deeply and to live above the declining ethical standards of our day.

    I guess the most haunting part of your post is the harsh reality is that our denominations are simply mirrors of our churches. We need to come to grips with the problem that there is something wrong with how we are “doing church” today. I am reminded of a quote from Dallas Willard and I will paraphrase. He said in essence could it be the society is how it is today not in spite of what we are doing as church but because of what we are doing as church. Of course Willard calls us back to “making disciples” like Jesus did, and focusing on His Kingdom rather than our own.

    David Lowrie

    P.S. Ellis I pray the Lord will speak a prophetic word through you as you speak at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta.

  3. I wanted to mention how that SBC churches across the nation are in a downward spiral in the midst of their “conservative” leanings. That would then have lead to other stuff which may have sounded like, “blah, blah, blah, and blah.” But, Ellis just said it so much better than I ever could have.

    I just have to bow to his great articulation of the present truth. As David mentioned in his comment, the Convention is just the reflection of the churches. There is a “church” problem, no doubt. I’m trying to give some serious thought to how we change it around. I know of some that have articulated a need to let the dying churches die; and that we should just plant churches with a more Kingdom relevant DNA. (Thanks Ed for that little tidbit.) However, I’m not ready to give up on the churches that have kept the faith alive (yes, it has been limping along; but it has been moving through the ages) for so many years. Granted, I’m not sure that the latest and greatest “Turn Around Churches” book has all the answers. That just seems like a reaction. I’m tired of reactions.

    I’m still thinking and praying…and thinking some more. It is a new year with new possibilities. Lets try to make something happen in ’08.

    Tim

  4. The major issue in denominational work is plain and simple…it is relevance. If we as a convention are no longer relevant to a large segment of our presumed constituency then we have, in effect, lost them. Getting them back will require a whole new set of paradigms, some of which might even sound radical to us “traditionalists”. I for one believe we desperately need our denomination as a vehicle for cooperative missions. Cooperative mission, though, is no longer a relevant issue with a lot of pastors, and, consequently, their churches. Ergo, if cooperative missions is our thing, and it is not relevant to so many, what can we do to make it relevant? Seems to me, that is the issue we should be working on. All these social “prophecies” are just words we enjoy speaking, but most of our people are not listening. If a prophecy is spoken and no one hears it, was it really spoken?

  5. Why would we want anybody back?

    I mean, if half of the state of Texas doesn’t have any religious affiliation; why don’t we “replace” whoever “they” are that left by Kingdom Expansion? Seriously, why do we pine over members changing their letter, when the truly lost are perishing down the street? Just seems like a waste of time to me.

    Tim

  6. Ellis Orozco

    David:

    Thanks for the response.

    The Dallas Willard paraphrase has a lot of truth to it. Tom Wolf said that the church (when measured against the biblical norm) has become so abnormal that when it begins to approach normal it appears to be abnormal (paraphrased). The churches that, to us, appear to be just a little crazy … are probably closer to the biblical norm than we are.

    Of course, Tom pastored Church on Brady in East Los Angeles for 25 years and he absolutely loved the Church. We do too. So this is not a matter of standing outside of an institution and throwing stones at it. We are talking about the Bride of Christ … and HE will make her beautiful and radiant, without blemish. Until that time, it is our task to love her and to call her to everything God wants her to be.

    We talk a lot about being prophetic. And I believe you are absolutely right … it is the church and the church alone that is to be the prophetic voice in the midst of the culture. Many keep crying for the government to be the prophetic voice to the culture (prayer in schools, ten commandments on the walls, etc.) It is the CHURCH’S job to be the prophetic voice, and any time we abdicate that responsibility … any time we hand that task to any other entity … the gospel suffers … the truth is compromised … the prophetic voice is muted. As poor a job as the church has done in this area in the recent past … we must continue to look to her for a prophetic word.

    I agree with Tom Long who talks about the pastor as prophet in the sense that he “funds the prophetic imagination” of the church. The prophet is not the pastor who stands in the pulpit thundering a prophetic message (the culture at large isn’t listening to our pupits anyway), but rather the pastor who holds the church’s hand when she is sick or hurting or hungry or just flat out wrong, and whispers in her ear a word of truth that funds her prophetic imagination, so that over time, THE CHURCH begins to “speak” a prophetic word to the culture. It is the church that incarnates the prophetic word, interpreting it in ways that impacts the culture.

    Walter Brueggemann reminds us that the Old Testament prophets were not created ex nihlo. It was, in fact, the community that nurtured and funded the faith understanding of a young Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Elijah. These prophets were produced by the community of faith that nurtured them and taught them when they were children. At a certain, critical point in time the prophet rose from the community to speak a difficult truth to the community. But, even so, they never stopped being a part of the community. When Jeremiah’s words came true and Judah was being led off in chains … guess who was being led off in chains with the community … Jeremiah was.

    A prophet without a community is impotent. Jeremiah funded the prophetic imagination of Judah and were it not for Judah (the community), and her prophetic work in the culture, we would never even have heard of Jeremiah.

    David, thanks for your prayers on Atlanta. I need them, as I approach it with fear and trembling.

    Ken … I’ve always appreciated your passion for missions and evangelism. The answer to your last question is “no.” A prophet without a community is just whistling in the wind.

    Tim … keep wrestling. I always appeciate the way you think and what you have to say. In your wrestling you are coming to some good answers. Through it all just remember … the Church IS the Bride of Christ … there is no other Bride … there is no other way to make an eternal impact on our culture but through the Church. I don’t always like that answer … but I believe it to be true.

    blessings,
    ellis

  7. Ellis, I totally agree: “…the Church IS the Bride of Christ…” I’m just trying to find a “church” that honestly represents that. We might come into a day when the Church won’t be found within the institutionalized church. I know of Christians in Houston, TX that are meeting very fluidly/organically. One person, an ex-CEO of a major business, meets with one group for bible study one day, and a different group for worship on another day. There are no memberships, no Sunday School rolls, no modernistic trappings that most would call a church. But, I believe that they are having more “Church” than most of us experience. But then again, I’ve been wrong before.

    Tim

  8. Ted

    I visited a church this past Sunday and went to that time honored institution of Sunday School. These folk likely were at different economic stages and were 100% anglo. We knew many in the room. A few said hello to my wife and myself. A few said hello to each other. Most sat, bowed when we prayed and sang when we did the mini-big church thing. All listened to the guest speaker and politely walked out to go into a larger room and do basically the same thing again. We really didn’t hear much about Jesus and absolutely zero about how anything applied to our lives. We only heard how a recent discovery just confirms that Scripture is true, and for me that was unquestioned when I walked in the room.

    Today I visited an old friend. We sat among millionaires of all types as we shared a meal and fellowship. I know these were millionaires because you have to be one to live in this gated community. Not one person entered the clubhouse without greeting and shaking hands with everyone else. All greeted me. They cared for each other. At one point there was group conversation related to the Methodist pastor’s sermon this past Sunday and how we should be Jesus people and not just church people. One of the younger entrepreneur’s (about 35) talked about he and his wife preferred the traditional service! Another fellow came in, mentioned his faith. Turns out he is an atheist and my friend had told him he had to have more faith to be an atheist than to be a theist. There was acceptance, laughter, and some serious reflection about living for Jesus.

    Which meeting incorporated more of the NEW TESTAMENT ideals for what it means to be “church”?

  9. Hm…. New Testament Ideals… I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means. Well, there was food at the club; and there was food at those first Christian worship services. I guess I gotta go with the Food and Fellowship while talking about Jesus, Ted.

    Tim

  10. Ted

    Tim – New Testament Ideals – perhaps a better word would have been precepts or teaching. As you would understand, no illustration can stand up on all-fours. But I think you got the point.

    I had posted a longer response but then realized this isn’t my blog, so I deleted the longer portion.

    David, thanks for letting us have this forum and if any care to read my thoughts you can access http://www.walkingthebeat.typepad.com for the few times I post and also get my email address for personal dialogue.

  11. Hey guys,

    I have enjoyed learning from you, and thinking about these issues together. I was at the Texas Baptist Evangelism Conference this week, so I was out of the loop for a bit. Thanks for carrying on without me.

    Let’s keep thinking deeply about the future of the Kingdom. I am confident the hand of God is at work among us. I just pray “my box” does not limit His creativity in my life and ministry.

    David

  12. kfgray

    The annual NCC Yearbooks show that denominations experiencing sustained and consistent multi-year declines are the UCC, PCUSA, Episcopal Church, Lutheran (Missouri Synod) and Methodist.

    Pentecostal churches show the most sustained growth. The Catholic and Orthodox churches and LDS are consistently growing; so is SBC (according to 2007 yearbook) although not outpacing population growth.

    So I always hear how conservative churches are declining but this seems consistently to show the opposite. I do not study this but just try to keep informed. Does anyone have better numbers or a better source?

  13. kfgray,

    Just so you know: I heard of the SBC’s 70%-80% plateaued and declining churches from a sermon given by Frank Page at the Southwestern Chapel shortly after his election as the SBC President. I heard that only 1% of our churches are growing by conversions from a sermon by Rick Warren at the BGCT Annual Convention of 2007.

    What is the NCC Yearbooks? How do I get a hold of one? What data is their statistics based off of?

    I remember seeing some information back in 2003, concerning the growth of our Association’s churches. We had been growing by 4-6%, according to church rolls. I also noticed that our county had been growing by 16-17%. Simply put, we weren’t really growing in any way that mattered.

    On another note, concerning church rolls: aren’t they supposed to be the best means of contacting lost people that churches have? I thought I heard something like that from the floor at a previous SBC convention meeting.

    Tim

  14. kfgray

    Mr. Dahl,

    The “NCC Yearbook” is the National Council of Churches’ Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. NCC simply compiles annual church- reported statistics; I don’t think it attempts to correct flaws or differences in how churches keep their rolls or denominations report statistics. It’s also not diagnostic. The Yearbook is well-described at http://www.ncccusa.org/news/070305yearbook2007.html. You can preorder the 2008 version at http://www.electronicchurch.org.

    The Yearbook only shows broad trends. As Mr. Campolo said, mainline denominations known for social agendas are among the fastest declining. Whether the decline is by chunks, churches or individuals, I don’t know, but I appreciate Mr. Lowrie’s note of caution here.

    OTOH, as long as some denominations are show undeniably sustained growth, outpacing population growth, it seems that their churches are growing. And no matter how we analyze it that’s got to include some Kingdom growth. So I’m glad Rick Warren and Frank Page and you and Lee Miller (on your respective blogs) are asking the hard questions.

    And whether growth is “by letter” or by baptism (new believer) probably wouldn’t be in the Yearbook.

  15. KFGray,

    Thanks for the websites!

    Tim

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